Baltimore police retire the twirling nightstick, ending a century of use

March 27, 1995|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

Only in Baltimore is it called an espantoon.

Now, after nearly a century of use, the fabled nightstick -- used by city police officers for self-defense and subduing suspects -- is about to become a museum piece, the result of a controversial order by the department's chief.

Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who has been at the helm just over a year, has chosen a longer baton to replace the stick now seen on the street. The rawhide thong also will become history, ending a time-honored practice of twirling the sticks.

Critics say that the city is sacrificing part of its heritage and that training in how to use the new baton returns the department to an era of more violent policing.

They also worry about potential conflicts of interest because the organization that recommended the change is connected to a nightstick maker.

"There is an unusual amount of criticism from people who have participated in the [training] program," said Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3.

"I've heard more complaints in the past month on this issue than anything else."

Mr. Frazier acknowledges that the change "flies in the face of tradition."

But he says the move will standardize the sticks at one weight and length, could help reduce injuries and help officers better defend themselves. Such improvements in equipment and training are "critical in modern-day policing," he says.

Of the twirling, he said, "some people find it incredibly offensive and intimidating. It sends the wrong kind of message of what the police officer is doing and what he intends to do with the stick. Would you walk to an officer twirling one of those?"

The espantoon first surfaced in Baltimore at the turn of the century, when the police department issued the sticks only to night-shift officers.

Before police radios, officers communicated by banging their sticks on the sidewalk. And officers have found many uses for the thong -- from tourniquets to pulling drunks from the Inner Harbor.

Webster's Third Edition dictionary defines the term: "Espantoon, Baltimore, a policeman's club." The term is derived from the word "spontoon," a weapon carried by officers in the Roman legion, according to a police department training bulletin.

Between 22 and 26 inches long and made of seasoned hickory, maple or locust wood, the club -- described in a 1960 Sun headline as "The Policeman's Best Friend" -- has become part of Baltimore lore.

One 1947 Sun article, headlined "Swing Class -- In Blue," explained the intricacies of nightstick twirling. Even then, the article noted, police commanders expressed concern about the image that twirling presented, but were reluctant to change. "After all, telling a policeman not to swing his espantoon would be like asking a happy man not to whistle," it said.

For decades, Baltimore police officers have bought their own sticks -- most often from other officers who turned them out on basement lathes.

Officer Joseph Hlafka, known throughout the department as "Nightstick Joe," started making the sticks early in his career. He charges $30 a stick, some of which are customized with nicknames.

Now, after selling more than 22,000 sticks nationwide, he's losing his local market. "If there is an officer out there who is not carrying one of my sticks, he is not a member of the Baltimore Police Department," he boasted.

The 27-year veteran, who patrols the Inner Harbor, criticized Mr. Frazier for "not considering the historical aspect in all this. It's just a shame. All this history, and he's just throwing it by the wayside."

Officer Hlafka defended the thong as a safety device that prevents people from grabbing the stick and taking it away. The twirling, he said, keeps people from sneaking up on an officer.

"I think people like to see us twirl the stick," added Officer McLhinney. "Criminals don't like to see us twirl the stick. I have bTC heard that twirling the stick is intimidating. It's supposed to be intimidating. It's a stick."

But the commissioner said the change in nightsticks comes from "an analysis of use and injuries and complaints both in terms of internal investigations and image and perception. As we try to become a more community-oriented agency, it's a change I felt necessary to make."

He said he also has "serious concerns" about the variable weight of the privately made nightsticks. "The larger the circumference and the heavier that stick is, the more it is like a bat," he said, while expressing concerns that grooves in the espantoon's handle can cause injuries.

James J. Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and an expert in police use of force, said it is important that departments have standardized equipment.

"They should all have the same [nightstick]," said Mr. Fyfe, a former New York City police officer, adding that many departments across the country are going to the straight baton.

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